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Zionism: BILU

The year the pogroms began in Russia, 1881, is the year Russian Jews started emigrating in large numbers to the United States. A smaller number of them, however, turned their eyes toward Zion; in 1882, several thousand Russian Jews emigrated to Palestine. Prior to this, most Jews who made aliyah to Israel did so for religious reasons; it was considered meritorious, for example, to die in the Holy Land. Living in Palestine, however, was considerably harder. It was an impoverished land, many — if not most — of whose Jewish inhabitants depended on worldwide Jewish charitable contributions.

In 1882 also, a new Jewish organization was founded that had a very different scenario in mind for Jewish life in Israel. The group was called BILU, an acronym based on a verse from Isaiah (2:5), "Beit Ya'akov Lekhu Ve-nelkha/Let the house of Jacob go!" BILU's founders believed that the time had come for Jews not only to live in Israel, but to make their living there as well.

The Bilu'im were influenced by Marx as well as the Bible, and hoped to establish farming cooperatives in Palestine. For the fourteen ex-university students who comprised the first group of Bilu'im, farming represented a complete change of lifestyle. (Because Jews had been forbidden to own land in Russia, the country had almost no Jewish farmers.) Arriving in Palestine with enormous "funds" of good will and energy, but with little money and experience, the Bilu'im found life very difficult. Two Palestinian Jews who had already raised money to buy land gave the group a tract to set up a farm in the settlement of Rishon Le-Zion. Within a few months, the Bilu'im faced starvation, and most had to leave.

A few years later, the eight members of the group who had remained in Palestine were offered land in G'dera. Here they struggled against both difficult farming conditions — meals eventually consisted only of radishes and potatoes — and Arab marauders. "They violated our boundaries," one of the Bilu'im recorded in his diaries, "and dispossessed us of whole tracts of our land — and we were helpless." Ironically, the G'dera outpost was eventually saved through the philanthropic efforts of one of the archcapitalists of the Jewish world, Baron Edmund de Rothschild of France. The dispirited, and by now demoralized, Bilu'im soon left the settlement. Some went to other parts of Palestine, others returned to Europe.

Although the BILU movement, failed completely its vision of Jewish cooperative farms was carried out very successfully a few decades later by the kibbutz and moshav movements. Ever since, the BILU dream of Jews living and supporting themselves in their own homeland has been regarded as one of the important forerunners of the international Zionist movement which Theodor Herzl organized fifteen years later.

Sources: Joseph Telushkin. Jewish Literacy. NY: William Morrow and Co., 1991. Reprinted by permission of the author.